Recent technological advances are changing the way citizens engage with their councils. Increased use of mobile and internet has made sure that consumers have a high volume of data at their fingertips and they value timeliness and accessibility above all else.

This is driving a change in the role traditionally played by the councils. In addition to being providers of sustainable infrastructure, they must now also provide a more responsive service with the same or even fewer funds at their disposal.

Hence, local government professionals are looking at new ways of working to form trusted and valued relationships with their residents. They are now leveraging innovations such as online customer portals, smart city initiatives and mobile and web enablement to connect with their community, stay accessible beyond the traditional working hours and modernise customer engagement.

Online is here to stay

Councils have started rolling out services that can be accessed 24/7. These are available on community portals, which rely on automation and self-serve technologies. Many local councils and state departments in Australia provide a broad range of services on their community portals such as applying for pet registration, complaining about a service, checking and paying fines, to name a few.

These are available in both browser and mobile. They allow the citizens to log in, manage payments and relay their personal preferences to the council. Self-serve technologies like these save time and eliminate double handling of information at the council, while giving residents the ability to interact with council at any time.

However, customer-facing innovations like these need to be supported by robust IT systems, which will ensure continuous uptime, information security, cost efficiencies and ease of operations for the councils. Most councils are looking to achieve these efficiencies through a flexible IT system that allows them to use preferred third-party solutions.

A recent survey of local government professionals has revealed that data security, mobile compatibility, web-enablement, integration with third-party solutions, automation and business intelligence are some of the features they have come to expect from their IT systems. The findings were a part of the report titled ‘Changing landscape: Digital transformation’ that my company commissioned in collaboration with the Institute for Public Policy and Governance at the University of Technology Sydney.

Such systems not only help to streamline operations but also deliver cost-effectiveness and increased efficiencies. They do this by freeing council staff from repetitive tasks to focus on more important ones. For example, mobile phones and tablets ensure that field workers are updated with customer requests even on the move. In the meantime, residents get status updates in real time and ensure a speedy processing of their requests.

Communicating for higher engagement

According to our report titled ‘The changing landscape for local government’, in addition to technological enhancements, local governments are looking at communications to help them better engage with their community. Many councils are now using social media to reach out to the community. They have deployed a multichannel communications strategy, where paper-based newsletters exist alongside posts on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.

This, in turn, also allows them to provide real-time feedback, which then can be actioned by key decision-makers, as they now have access to recordable data which would not have been available earlier.

However, councils and government institutions must realise that digital transformation is a change in mindset, and implementation is not just an installation of a new system.

Ensuring a Successful Implementation

While there have been successful implementations of digital technology for community engagement, to date, some councils continue to struggle to adopt new systems. Experts attribute a variety of reasons for this including being unclear about expected outcomes, poor communication, lack of senior management buy-in being overly cautious of the new technology and data analysis, among others.

As such, the onus is on our councils to change perception, mindset and organisational culture in order to be successful. Moreover, the advantages of effective community engagement go both ways; authorities will be able to make well-informed decisions that are directly tailored to the needs of the community.

A system that can take full advantage of the information and technology available will provide a better society that takes into account the holistic needs of its community.